April 1st, 2012
Is “digital first” the healthy snack food fad of the media industry?
By Gil Asakawa
Rick Edmonds wonders in a Poynter.com piece, “Healthy snacks, ‘digital first’ and the speed of the news industry’s transformation,” if some media companies are hurting themselves by embracing the online mantra that’s most personified by John Paton and Digital First, the company that manages both the Journal Register Company and MediaNews Group. He notes the recent strategic shift by PepsiCo away from the healthier snacks and drinks (think Stacy’s Simply Naked pita chips and Izze sodas) that have been promoted by high-profile CEO Indra Nooyi back to the company’s traditional core business of junk food and sugary drinks (Doritos, Pepsi).
Edmonds cautions media companies from embracing the digital revolution whole-hog and turning away from their print products too soon.
I’m not equating print editions with junk food, or digital with trendy eating. Sooner or later (maybe much sooner), people will consume most of their news digitally. The ranks of healthy eaters are growing, but holdouts still outnumber the converts.
In most news organizations, print still drives 85 to 90 percent of revenues, and that imbalance has been slow to shift. Print is every bit the core product that the old Pepsi brands are at Nooyi’s company.
It’s food for thought for those of us committed to the digital future of media. But outside of the rhetoric that’s needed to begin changing the cultural values of a print-centric industry, I don’t see digital-first advocates shutting down dead-tree operations and going exclusively online and mobile. No one seems in a hurry to kill off the goose that (once upon a time) laid the golden egg. The egg may be smaller, and maybe it’s losing its luster, but it’s still golden for now.
The transition’s just started so it’s possible some extreme strategic decisions are coming sooner rather than later. Maybe they’ll be necessitated by the realities of the evolving business model. I think it’s important to be aware of all points of view, but personally, I’m going to forge forward and embrace the future while still cheering on the efforts of the print industry I grew up on (I was a WashPo paperboy in the pre-Watergate era, after all).
Edmonds acknowledges that we won’t know for a while how this all will end:
Time will tell the merits of Paton’s high-profile, evolving digital initiatives, and whether other major companies will be persuaded to follow. I’ll be watching the drama unfold in coming months, and so will many others. (Meanwhile, please pass the Doritos.)
I agree — the jury’s just gone out. I think in the long run, people like Paton, Jim Brady, Steve Buttry and Jeff Jarvis that are mentioned in Edmonds’ piece will be proven correct.
But journalists shouldn’t just sit around waiting for the jury. They should be learning the new skills they’ll need to thrive in the next era, which everyone agrees is coming, whether we like it or not. I don’t think Edmonds is saying we should stick our heads in the sand and hold on tightly to the Old Ways. But I’ve known mid-career journalists who want to do exactly that, and are resistant to the changes staring them in the face.
The question is, how long will it take before the jury’s back in, and can we afford to wait? (Hint: The changes will never stop coming, so don’t be left behind!)
What do you think?